For 45 minutes each week, students in Jessica Busch’s class at Red Pine Elementary in Eagan are no longer just first-graders. Instead, when they don their white chef hats, they become Food Explorers, ready to touch, taste and smell foods that many of them have never tried before.

Last week, the students sampled “Superhero Salad,” a mixture of spinach, mozzarella cheese and apples topped with a homemade dressing made of orange juice, basil and honey.

The verdict: There were a lot more “oohs” than “ewws,” and nearly every kid liked it.

“I think they like experimenting in the classroom, and from what I’ve heard from parents, some will go home and try the recipes there,” Busch said.

That’s the point of Food Explorers, now in its second year, said Teresa Ambroz, health and wellness manager with the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation. The program was developed in collaboration with schools to reach kindergarten and first-grade students “so they could develop healthy habits when they’re young,” Ambroz said.

Another goal is to involve kids in preparing food so they can make meals at home.

The program was tested last year at two elementary schools, including Red Pine. In surveys, 73 percent of parents said their kids were more willing to try new foods after participating, and all of the teachers saw students increasing their fruit and vegetable consumption during lunch and snack times, Ambroz said.

A collaborative effort

Food Explorers trains parent and graduate student volunteers to go into classrooms in four south-metro schools, including two Burnsville-Eagan-Savage schools and Red Pine in Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan. About 600 kids participate, Ambroz said.

The program was developed with a chef, with help from nutritionists, school food service directors and a curriculum writer.

It fits with the heart foundation’s mission of preventing heart disease, Ambroz said, and this year, it’s funded with a $10,000 grant from General Mills.

Volunteers make four visits per class, introducing a recipe — yogurt parfaits with pineapple and blueberries or veggies and dip, for example — each time.

‘If you try it, you get a sticker’

The recipes use affordable, accessible ingredients that kids are unlikely to be eating already. All have fun names, like “Silly Dilly Dip,” a practice proven to improve the odds that kids will try new foods, Ambroz said.

On salad-making day, volunteers aren’t allowed to tell the kids they’re eating spinach until the end, when the teacher samples it. That’s because many kids automatically assume they won’t like it, Ambroz said.

Having a positive attitude toward food — and not forcing kids to eat things — are important components, Ambroz said.

“Remember, you can try a little of it and throw it away,” Busch instructed her class. “But if you try it, you get a sticker.”

Mary Beth Wehrman volunteered with the program last year, when her youngest was a first-grader, and continued this year. “I love that it’s called Food Explorers because that’s what explorers do — they touch, feel and taste,” she said.

Several weeks ago, she brought in a whole pineapple, which many students had never seen.

Food Explorers is great, she said, because it exposes kids to so many different foods. When making meals at home, “You get in a rut where you only make certain things,” she said.

The program works because it puts kids in a different environment than they’re usually in when eating. At school, it’s their decision whether to try a food, she said.

First-grader Owen Swanson is “kind of picky at home. I’m less picky at school,” he said. “I thought [the salad] was going to be icky, but it was yummy.”

Food service manager Cheryl Rosa tries to offer some of the new items, including spinach and jicama, in the cafeteria. “If we start with our kids young, when they get to middle school, they’re not going to say, ‘Yuck,’ ” she said.

Red Pine Principal Gary Anger said the program fits well with his school’s focus on health and wellness.

Access and exposure to fresh foods is important from an equity perspective, too, because poor nutrition contributes to health disparities between socioeconomic groups, he said. About 20 percent of Red Pine students receive free or reduced-price lunches, he said, and there are “real economic gaps in our school.”

“[Food Explorers] has really made a huge difference. We firmly believe that healthy kids do better in school … and we’ve seen great results in our academics and behavior,” he said.